Film as thesis: 3 Depictions of the Nature of History

Agora history

Alejandro Amenábar’s ‘Agora’ (2009)

As a history graduate and a film lover I’ve long been aware of the complex relationship between cinema and the past. Films can reflect our history, the way we reconstruct a story of the past from the evidence around us. They can also shape popular understanding of history, as shown by both Hollywood blockbusters and overt propaganda.

When we discuss the history depicted in a film we often focus on how it shapes our understanding of specific events. But there is another layer to the way that historical films shape our perspective, because each film, like every other work of historical storytelling, also contains and transmits an implicit thesis on the nature of history.

Braveheart (1995) – great men in bold colours

Medieval epic Braveheart is notorious for the liberties it took with historical events, liberties which used to send me, as a scholar of the period, into extended and angry rants. But while the passage of time might make it easier to overlook the film’s factual flaws, focusing on those flaws also distracts from the film’s broader message on the sweep of history.

Braveheart is an intensely old-fashioned depiction of history, and of the world we live in. There are stark divisions between good and evil, with clear right and wrong rather than complex moral and political issues at stake. Events are dictated by the actions of great men, not social movements. This is history as something simple and unambiguous, a morality play. You are either on the side of the angels or that of the demons, and though you can cross back and forth you cannot hold a more complex position.

Lincoln (2012) – one issue at a time

Lincoln, the story of a president’s battle to end slavery, wants to show us a more nuanced thesis, yet remains noticeably simple. There are great social movements at play, but they are enacted through, and led by, a single great man. His opponents are not evil, but neither are they made particularly sympathetic. Their motives and concerns are given little screen time.

More than this, Lincoln is single-issue history. True, the issue of slavery is approached from different angles, particularly those of individual liberties, the cost of war and the integrity of the American republic. But slavery is still the issue of the film. This alone is at stake, this alone is being decided.

Lincoln nods its hat to historical complexity, but as befits a film about storytelling it still narrows history down to a single narrative, in which great events have a single cause, be that cause slavery or be it Abraham Lincoln.

Agora (2009) – the pain of complexity

Agora, perhaps more than any other film, explores a vision of history as complexity and chaos. Depicting life in late Roman Alexandria, it intertwines a variety of narrative strands – a philosopher’s quest to understand the universe; the rise of a hard line Christian church; battles for freedom and for political stability; personal relationships twisted by political and social power. While some narrative strands are more prominent than others, none is thrust forward as the sole central issue. Science matters. Philosophy matters. Religion and politics matter.

This is history as complex characters and movements. While the Christian cause is perhaps the least sympathetic in the film, we are shown a strand of moral good within it, with the charity the church practices and the liberty it promises to slaves. Every character is a mixture of many motives, flaws and virtues. Every event arises from the interplay of different motives, movements and personalities, not one single person’s agenda.

Pick your own thesis

By now you’ve probably realised that I favour the Agora view of history. But that’s not the point that I want to make.

Whatever your perspective on history, be aware of the way that it is depicted on film. Notice the agenda each historical film puts forwards, not just on the issues at stake within the film but on the nature of history. To forget history is to repeat its mistakes. To ignore its nature is to wilfully forget.

Andrew is a freelance writer based in Stockport, England, where the grey skies provide a good motive to stay inside at the word processor. He’s had over forty stories published in places such as Daily Science Fiction, Wily Writers and Ann VanderMeer’s Steampunk anthologies. He blogs about books, film, TV and writing at andrewknighton.wordpress.com.

4 thoughts on “Film as thesis: 3 Depictions of the Nature of History

  1. Like you, I am a former history student, and film fan. I rarely trust the combination of the two, particularly in epics like ‘Braveheart’. We are always only going to get the film-maker’s version of the events or period, though I feel that some are better than others at re-creating it.

    Personal favourites for accuracy (at least attempts at it) can often make for dull or dry viewing. ‘Gettysburg’ comes to mind in this category, though I still enjoy it, as I am interested in the subject. For more entertainment, with period accuracy retained to a large extent, I have to agree with Cindy about ‘Elizabeth’, a great effort. Also ‘La Reine Margot’, ‘Captain Alatriste’, ‘Goya’s Ghost’, and ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’. The Russian epic, ‘1612’, is likewise worthy in this respect.

    Best wishes from Norfolk, Pete.

  2. That’s good stuff, Andrew. I never really think of film — at least the 2 hour, narrative format that has become prevalent — as being a good vehicle for history. It assaults the senses and doesn’t typically allow for sober reflection or interaction the way reading a book or participating in a seminar does. Of course there are exceptions but I’ve never really thought much about the filmmaker’s pedagogical method in depicting history. I’ll have to try looking at some histories that way.

  3. Great post, Andrew. As you say, creating the historical climate will always be biased, for selecting a narrative to highlight whatever issues is a weighty job for any author or director. It’s a rare piece that “accurately” reflects the past. Braveheart is a charming film but not one I would take seriously as a historian. Still, it has its merits by providing the setting of the time and mode of military tactics and introducting the muddled relationships between the social heirarchy. I don’t expect more from a historical film. I will say Elizabeth and Gladiator are my two favorite historical films knowing that the dialogues are fictionalized and so no matter how hard a director tries to be accurate, romanticizing a postion and interjecting conversations will bring about criticism.

  4. Strong article, Andrew. It’s very astute of you to point out the varying ways history can be depicted on film. It’s funny–I’m less peeved at Braveheart’s fallacious interpretation of history than the ponderous way the film was made, but I think you’ve made some good points about how movies show the past. When I watch Lawrence of Arabia, what am I enjoying–an interpretation of the past that has been fictionalized, or a bit of exotic instruction? I think all historical pictures “change” history–they have to in order to be films! But how they do it is the question.

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